Preserving History

11.21.13

Palestinians and Jews Unite to Save the Pre-1948 Town of Lifta

Nearly two years after an Israeli court halted state plans to sell the last uninhabited pre-1948 Arab village, the site continues to crumble.

Lifta, burrowed in the slopes at the Western entrance to Jerusalem, was temporarily saved as is: pastoral, dilapidated and frozen in time. The Jerusalem court ruled in February 2012 that the Israel Land Authority could not sell to luxury developers until they contracted the Israel Antiquities Authority's conservation wing to survey more widely.

The ILA and IAA did not answer questions about when a new survey will begin. But dozens of Israeli and Palestinian architects, engineers, urban planners, sociologists, anthropologists, ecologists, zoologists, and university students have already started independent professional surveys―as volunteers.

The Coalition to Save Lifta, founded three years ago, is comprised of concerned Israelis and Palestinians as well as Lifta descendants and natives who fled or were expelled during the 1947-8 war; many live in nearby east Jerusalem or Ramallah.

So far, the coalition has recorded oral histories, nature and wildlife surveys, and detailed information on homes. Bezalel Academy’s architecture department has started uploading the findings to an online archive, including maps and photos, and will integrate stories of life in the village and related links.

Coalition members say they are following international conservation norms observed in such countries as Italy and Australia―but not in Israel. Shmuel Groag, a Bezalel Academy architect, explains that cultural heritage practices today don’t assess and preserve sites based solely on antiquities or historical buildings, but also on the heritage of flora, fauna, and communities. “The discourse of conservation has changed, [yet] nobody in Israel does social, cultural and ecological [surveys],” he said. “We want to build a precedent.”

Groag also said that Israeli law only deals with antiquities older than 1700 years: “No body officially deals with conservation [of younger structures]; there is no general policy and no broad survey[s].”

Palestinian civil engineer Nasser Abu Leil, who worked on the architectural survey, said that so far the family histories of all but three or four houses have been found.

The coalition members―Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, political as well as those interested only in heritage or nature―have diverse opinions about long-term political considerations and partnerships under the pressure of boycotts, “but we all agree on conservation,” he said.

In 1950, Israel designated the 400 or so Arab communities whose residents fled or were expelled during the war as state-owned “absentee property.” Residents were neither permitted to return nor compensated. Empty Arab neighborhoods―with the exception of Lifta―were razed or repopulated with Jewish communities. Lifta remains empty, save a few houses on its periphery resettled after the war with poor Jewish immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries.

The coalition’s pro bono lawyer, Sami Ersheid, says that international law and resolutions prohibit actions influencing Palestinian refugees until the end of negotiations, so Israel cannot sell or build atop the houses―an argument Israel rejects. Ersheid also said that international preservation codes “put the burden on Israel to give deeper thought and more delicate treatment for a site like Lifta.”

Full of springs, fruit trees, cactuses and stone structures, Lifta was initially slated to be a nature preserve. In 2006, a plan was approved for the sale of a large part of Lifta in order to build 268 luxury homes, schools, synagogues, parking, a hotel, roads and a large commercial center. The remaining old stone houses, about four dozen, would be renovated into villas maintaining the architectural style. Some historical structures, including the mosque, the cemetery and a Crusader building, would be preserved.

The plan also led to eviction notices without compensation to the remaining Jewish families, who joined the coalition and gave oral histories.

One of the Jews who stayed in Lifta until his death became close with the Palestinians who owned his home and visited after 1967. Lifta reminded him of his village in Kurdistan and the two families found many commonalities, said coalition co-founder Daphna Golan, a Hebrew University sociologist. “The coalition brings together the rights of two marginalized groups, Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews.”

Golan also said that an extremely rare diversity of plants and wildlife has been found and that the ancient agricultural terraces and irrigation systems are similar to the ones in Battir, listed last month by the World Monuments Fund as endangered. “Israel’s first president, Ben Zvi, wrote about [Lifta’s] agriculture being a continuation of biblical [traditions],” Golan said.

According to the IAA, a village called Mei Neftoah there was destroyed during the Roman invasion and Lifta started to develop in the sixteenth century around Crusader ruins.

Jerusalem historian David Kroyanker, who is unaffiliated with the coalition, called Lifta a rare and interesting example of pre-1948 rural Arab architecture. Many homes are similar to the structures of the biblical period, he said. He added that he hadn’t seen the development plan so couldn’t comment on it.

For private Israeli researcher Ilan Shtayer, a coalition cofounder and son of a Holocaust survivor, “there is market pressure in Jerusalem to [gentrify but]” Israel should protect non-Jewish heritage the way that European countries should protect Jewish heritage as “shared heritage.”

Yaqoub Odeh, 76, who was born in Lifta, knows that the political issues are harder to resolve, but it’s important to focus on immediate steps, he said: “I dream to go home, but the main idea of the coalition is to protect Lifta from bulldozers and the weather.”